Was Autumn really that naïve, or had she been cursed with dull wits? I should test her.
Cloudhawk stretched and crossed his legs, feigning disinterest. “Words are cheap. Let’s do this. Tell me where your tribe is, and I’ll check it out. If it’s like you say then I’ll think about helping you.”
Autumn clenched her fists and was about to speak, but she swallowed it back before the words could pass her lips. At the last moment she remembered something an elder of her tribe constantly repeated, and shook her head. “The elders have said that we must never share the location of our home with outsiders, no matter the circumstances. I will not tell you.”
“Well, it sure seems like you don’t understand the situation you’re in.” Cloudhawk’s dark eyes became sharp, and it seemed almost as though there was a fire smoldering deep inside. All at once the whole store filled with a bloodthirsty sense, and the young man’s voice went from lazy and amicable to something from the depths of hell itself. She trembled at the sound of it. “I don’t it like when people screw around with me.”
He spoke slowly, calmly. To others they would not hear anything out of the ordinary.
But to Autumn the words struck her mind like a war hammer. A frigid sensation raced through her body and her throat closed up like someone’s hand was wrapped around it. What she saw in the man’s eye was bestial. He was a creature that had crawled its way up from the corpse-strewn mountains and blood-filled seas of the underworld. She’d never experienced anything like it, and the terrifying man seemed to close in on her with every passing second.
She was rigid as an icy-cold feeling started to curl around her legs. Like a frigid serpent, it slithered up her legs from the ground, the creeping fingers of death itself. She knew if she moved even an inch those fingers would tear her apart.
Cloudhawk’s face split into a devilish smirk. “Think carefully.”
Her legs trembled of their own accord. Never in her life had Autumn encountered a man so terrifying. She knew intrinsically he would crush her like a flower if she refused. Even the strongest warriors of her people wouldn’t be able to stand against this monster’s will. As fire roiled in her heart, eating away at reason.
Cloudhawk maintained a perfect, distant calm. “If you want my help, then you have to be straight with me.”
Her teeth audible ground together as Autumn fought back. “I can’t tell you!”
The Warden was surprised by her fortitude.
Autumn gasped as the fires in Cloudhawk’s eyes receded and the pressure lifted. The terrifying sensations melted away, though it felt like she’d been caught in a nightmare for decades. Her clothes were drenched in sweat.
There was a demon living somewhere beneath this man’s handsome face!
“Sure.” Cloudhawk shrugged uncaringly. “But if we can’t come to a mutual understanding, then I’m not interested in your mission. I’ll just take what’s mine and leave it at that.” Cloudhawk waved a hand, and flecks of sand gathered into a grasping tentacle. It reached forth and snatched the parcel of enboncrys from Autumn’s arms, delivering it to his waiting hands. “Bring her to the bedroom so she can rest.”
“Let me go!” Autumn jumped as a pair of young women appeared on either side of her and took her arms. She glared at the brute who commanded them, her delicate features giving way to anger. “You… you’re nothing but a bandit!” She screamed at him.
“If I’m a bandit, then I’m a gentle and handsome one. Consider yourself blessed you ran into a scoundrel like me. Neve, Jasmine, let her go. If she doesn’t want to stay here then she may go. The door’s right there, and you’re feet know what to do. If you’re so intent on dying, far be it from me to stop you.”
Cloudhawk reached back and netted his fingers behind his head. He was perfectly at ease, like her decision didn’t matter in the least.
“I do have to say, though, that if I hadn’t very graciously intervened then right now you’d probably be in a dark room somewhere, with big guys taking turns on you. To be honest, I’m taking a risk with you even standing here. If others knew this was where you were hiding, trouble would be coming my way. Right now you’re a juicy slab of meat, missy, and everyone wants to take a bite.”
This very day, she’d run into a string of bad men with bad intentions. It underlined the reality that she’d made a mistake. This young man was also no good, but he’d at least spared her life. For the time being he hadn’t tried to bully her into anything or showed intent to harm.
Obviously, trying to get her sack of eboncrys back was out of the question. Truthfully, she didn’t care much, but she couldn’t go back empty handed. “You can have the eboncrys, but you agreed to give me five hundred sets of equipment. We agreed.”
Cloudhawk laughed like he’d heard the world’s funniest joke. “Miss Autumn Draper, you gave me a down payment, but I doubt you now have funds to settle accounts. This sack here is the fee for saving your life.”
“You’re going back on your promise!”
“Calm your head down, missy. Think about it; let’s say you’ve got ten copper and you’re off to buy some bread. On the way your money’s stolen, and the thieves use that money to buy the bread you were going to get. Now, should I give the bread to them, or give it to you?” Cloudhawk snorted. This girl really had no idea how lucky she was to run into him. “This eboncrys doesn’t belong to you. I got it from a bunch of thieving brigands. Spoils of victory. I have the equipment you want, but if you want them you’ll need to pay. Hand over the rest of the money, and you get what you want.”
“You’re full of nonsense, you-“
Autumn was so furious words failed her. Pale skin turned an angry red. She had never been good at arguing, much less in stressful situations like this, and he was far more verbally gifted than she was.
“The world out here is a fair place. When you make a mistake, you'll pay for it. Walking around by yourself while waving this sack of eboncrys about was just plain dumb.” Cloudhawk waved a hand dismissively. “When I saw there was a wrong that needed to be righted, I stepped in. When I saw you were in need, I helped. I didn’t have to, you know. I could’ve just taken the stones and then left you to those actual bandits. Good men like me are hard to find, especially in this dirty world. You should be grateful you’re still alive, but you shouldn’t continue to push your luck.”
Cloudhawk was being stubborn. Faced with such a shameless rogue, what choice did Autumn have?
She couldn’t fight him – she couldn’t even fight his little bird. She turned to storm out of the shop, but Cloudhawk’s words caught her feet. There were bad men like him looking for her all over the city now. Would she even get five hundred meters out the door before the next group came? Chances were she’d be a captive before she got that far.
After thinking better about it she stomped a heel in impotent fury and trudged upstairs to the second floor bedroom.
So she does have a brain.
“You’re welcome,” Cloudhawk said dryly as he watched the pair of long, pale legs disappear up the stairs. He caught the smell of her as she passed by and a mischievous light twinkled in his eye. When she was gone he quickly pulled open the parcel, picked out a cube and held it up to the light. “Not bad, not bad at all. These are good quality, they’ll fetch a damn good price. At least enough to pay off most of our debt. A damn good score.”
In truth, added together the parcel was only worth about twenty thousand gold coins. If he stuck to the price of fifty gold per armor set, then this wasn’t enough to cover the whole cost. But Autumn didn’t seem to know or understand. Did she not realize what they were really worth? However, getting more didn’t seem like a problem for her. That’s partially why Cloudhawk saved her.
He had to admit, her willpower was tougher than he would have figured. He’d tried to overwhelm her with his psychic energy, and any normal person would have collapsed under the pressure. Yet she kept her secrets, which proved to Cloudhawk that threats weren’t going to win him anything either. He’ll keep her close for the time being. Eventually he’d get his answer.
Gabriel had been seated a little apart. He had a thread in hand, and was working on a tapestry. None of this concerned him, but he couldn’t help but glance reprovingly at Cloudhawk. What a shameless hoodlum, speaking to her like that. What sort of uncouth thug would pick on a poor young girl?
Cloudhawk caught the look, but simply shrugged as he tossed up the cube and then snatched it out of the air. “This isn’t Skycloud. She’s gonna get herself killed. Far as I’m concerned, I’m doing her a favor.” Cloudhawk paused for a moment. “Which reminds me. Hey Gabby? If any rats try to sneak in tonight, let Naberius deal with them. Let him blow off some steam, right? We can’t have him rearing his head in broad daylight and causing me trouble.”
Gabriel was rather linear in character. Outside of embroidery and sculpting, his artful pursuits, there wasn’t much else that caught his interest. He wasn’t out for money or women. Most of the time he preferred to stay quiet and mind his own business. Of course, his amicable persona fled when Naberius took over.
The two fractured minds had long ago come to an agreement.
If Gabriel wanted Naberius to behave, he was expected to find materials for the sculptor to work with, at least a couple every week. The only way to make the beast sleep most of the time was to let him have his fun every so often. Tonight was just such an opportunity. Gabriel nodded. He set down the embroidery, then with a stuffy sigh walked out of the emporium.
Cloudhawk turned the gramophone back up, and turned it up to the loudest it would go so he wouldn’t be bothered by the ruckus.
The old record began to spin and music filled the room. Cloudhawk shut his eyes and lost himself in the melodies, entirely content. He’d only been here a few days, but he was finding that he rather liked this sort of life. No one looking over his shoulder, no constraints, total freedom, and a few coins in his pocket. Honestly he wasn’t sure what he was thinking, trying to get to the elysian lands all those years ago.
But it was no wonder. Such was the way of most men, no?
In fact, all of one’s wishes and expectations came down to where they were in life. Hopes changed as the years passed, but it was always a mystery when you had your face pressed up against it. It only made sense when you stepped back. People were always unable to get a grasp of the truth in the middle of living it. His wild desire to flee the wasteland was a perfect example. But if the whole world was a wasteland, where to hide then? Cloudhawk finally understood that the only real oasis existed in his heart. Although he was out in the bone-dry wasteland, he carried a green paradise with him wherever he went.
Oddball began to squawk at him.
Cloudhawk’s eyes popped open, and he looked down to see the tiny bird furiously flapping its wings. It was excitedly hopping around the eboncrys cubes. He’d raised the divine creature for three years, and in all that time the little bird hadn’t changed much at all. It maybe grew a little, and its wings had fully developed. That’s how it’d dealt with the Highwaymen.
The range of their shared visual connected had grown by four or five times since the beginning. He figured the limit was about five hundred meters by this point. He could instantly communicate with the critter so long as they didn’t separate farther than that. Oddball, of course, didn’t have much combat ability on its own. The bird relied on Cloudhawk’s psychic energy, and its master had learned in the last few years how to capitalize on Oddball’s abilities.
For instant, Oddball could shoot through the air at the speed of sound now.
Beyond the sheer speed, Oddball was also capable of moving with perfect control. With its keen feathers, Oddball was able to rip through foes before they even knew what happened. The only way normal enemies could protect themselves was if they were covered in armor. Otherwise they were left exposed to its slicing wings and bullet-like impact.
Then there were the feathers.
Oddball’s skill at flinging feathers like throwing daggers was exceptional. They weren’t enough to deal with more formidable characters, but the critter’s harmless appearance took many off guard. Oddball’s subsequent attacks often came as a surprise.
Cloudhawk was confident there was still more for him and Oddball to discover. Divine creatures were a unique class of relics. The stronger the master, the stronger their pet. So long as Cloudhawk continued to improve, he could expect Oddball to become ever more impressive.
Oddball’s beady eyes were fixed intently on an eboncrys cube.
“Is this what you want?”
Cloudhawk curiously picked one up and offered it to the bird, who plucked it from his fingers. Bird and cube fluttered down to the ground, and Oddball proceeded to throw it down, and peck at it with his beak. The eboncrys fractured into several jagged pieces. Tremendous energy was contained in those cubes, especially considering their size, and kept very stable. They were also hard, but Oddball could knock its beak against something with the force of a bullet, so it was no surprise they broke.
The creature gobbled up the pieces one by one.
Cloudhawk watched with some measure of surprise. He didn’t expect his little friend to scarf it down like that. Through their emotion connection he could feel the bird’s satisfaction, even joy. Evidently this was a delicacy, and likely far better for the little thing than the feed from Skycloud. This was bad news. If Oddball got a taste for these, how many would he need in a year to keep his companion fed?
There were only about a hundred cubes in the parcel he took from Autumn. Not enough to feed Oddball for very long. To confirm his fears, Oddball quickly finished his meal then looked pointedly at Cloudhawk. He sensed it clear: the feed he’d been giving him previously was bird food. Garbage!
Cloudhawk was distressed. This damn critter was a serious responsibility!
This was the difference between a normal relic and a divine beast. Relics didn’t change once they were forged, but divine beasts developed over time. A thing like Oddball had tremendous growth potential, and the eboncrys seemed like it would help. It seemed unavoidable. Cloudhawk had to get more of the stuff for his little friend.
This was going to be a problem. Cloudhawk had to come up with a solution.Previous Chapter Next Chapter
Reminds me of my cat. Ever since I started occasionally feeding him nice food, he started to turn his nose up at the dried kitty food...
Meanwhile, Autumn is about to get a serious reality check into the nature of the wastelands and even the borderlands.